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Physical Chemistry

One eclipse and the cosmos beyond

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
July 17, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 29

I’ve been finalizing my schedule for the upcoming ACS national meeting at the end of August, and I’m very excited for two reasons: First, it’ll be in Washington, D.C. Granted, it’ll be superhot in August, but it is home turf for me, my team, and ACS colleagues. And second, the much anticipated total eclipse of the sun will happen on day two of the meeting.

This phenomenon will be stunning for those who happen to be in North America at the time, as the sun will undergo the most spectacular disappearing act seen in this part of the world in decades. For those who live within a narrow strip of the U.S. stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, the eclipse will change daytime skies into twilight for just a few minutes. Outside those regions a partial eclipse—this looks like as if the moon took out a bite of the sun—will be visible. In D.C. on Aug. 21, the sky will briefly darken, with an estimated 81% obscuration of the sun.

To coincide with this planetary event, ACS is convening a symposium organized with NASA on Aug. 22–23. Under the title “Journey to Mars: Chemistry for Humanity’s Next Big Leap,” it will bring together industry, academia, government, and the public to an event that will focus on the cutting-edge technological developments required “to advance human space travel to Mars and translate them into radical new practical knowledge for the benefit of Earth and its people.”

Speaking about Mars and space exploration, I was amused to read that apparently there is such a thing as fake space dirt. Who would have thought that the “fake” craze would affect space science too? And it turns out that we are not so good at making it. What I’m talking about here is artificial soil—also called simulant—that replicates the surface of planets, satellites, and asteroids. Scientists use it to test rovers or drills and investigate how rocks weather in space, for example. But existing simulants mimic only space dirt’s physical properties, not its chemical ones. Nature recently reported that a group of NASA scientists is now working to produce reliable simulants from a combination of minerals inspired by the composition of certain meteorites, compressing them into bricks, and then pulverizing them.

Now, this soil may be fake, but it is far more Earth abundant and cheaper than importing the real thing from outer space. Bloomberg recently reported that moon dust collected by Neil Armstrong during the first lunar landing is being sold at a New York auction, and it sounds like it is going to go for millions of dollars. A small bag containing lunar dust and some tiny rocks that Armstrong collected during his trip (which coincidentally took place 48 years ago on July 20, the day of the auction) are worth an estimated $2 million to $4 million.

Space science continues to capture people’s imaginations, and I look forward to the symposium and solar eclipse during the national meeting here in D.C. A word of warning: If you plan to watch the eclipse at the national meeting, you’ll need more than just sunglasses to see it. ACS has ordered 5,000 pairs of the necessary protective eyewear, which can be collected from the Attendee Resources Area at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and at Operations Offices at hotels on a first-come, first-served basis. The good news is that if you miss this one you’ll only have to wait until 2024 for the next total solar eclipse to affect North American skies.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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